LONDON — Robert Pires is unique.

Christopher Davies

Not because of any special talent, achievement or deed, but because the Arsenal forward is surely the only person who believes he did not dive to earn a point-clinching penalty against Portsmouth last Saturday.

The case for the defense is that Pires said, as he was going past Dejan Stefanovic, his right foot caught the Portsmouth defender, the referee heard a noise and awarded the penalty.

The case for the prosecution is that when Pires pushed the ball past Stefanovic, television replays suggested he deliberately stuck out his right foot in order to make contact with the opponent, rather than the Portsmouth player being the instigator of any foul.

The outcome was a penalty for Arsenal which eventually was enough to secure a draw, a yellow card for Stefanovic, and, as Alan Wiley was clearly conned by Pires’ simulation, the referee will probably be deducted 10 points by his assessor for making a wrong decision which will affect the official’s total marks at the end of the season.

Cheating has no place in any sport, yet perhaps the most telling comment on Pires’ action came from Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp when asked what his reaction would have been had his center-forward Teddy Sheringham done the same at the other end.

Would Redknapp have criticized his own player?

“I’d be a liar if I said I would,” was Redknapp’s honest response. “And I can’t stand here and be a liar.”

You live by the dive, you die by the dive.

Cheating, like nasty tackles, seems to be something that only other teams do. And in the blinkered world of English football we are told — by Britons — that diving is “a foreign thing.”

Forget that the two free-kicks that led to England’s goals in its 2-2 draw over Greece at Old Trafford, which sent it to the 2002 World Cup finals were as soft as they come, the Dutch referee fooled by English exaggeration.

Forget that England manager Glenn Hoddle told his players before the 1998 World Cup in France that if they get the slightest touch “go down.”

It’s “a foreign thing.”

Southampton and England striker James Beattie no doubt inadvertently said after Kevin Phillips had stumbled over thin air against Wolves last weekend: “We won a penalty.”

Won. Not “were awarded” or “were given.” Won. These days you don’t just win games you also win penalties.

When Birmingham’s Welsh international Robbie Savage was tackled by Anthony Gardner on the opening day of the season and referee Rob Styles pointed to the penalty spot, the long-haired midfielder got up and punched the air in celebration.

What message does that send out? Mission accomplished? It gives the impression a player has accomplished what he set out to do, and while one can understand celebrations after scoring a goal, it is a different matter entirely to be equally joyous when the referee awards a penalty.

Of course, a player can be cautioned for attempting to deceive the referee, but this dubious art has been perfected to such a degree it can be difficult to spot from the official’s angle.

And unless the referee is absolutely sure a player is guilty of simulation, he will take no action — to effectively label someone a cheat when in fact he was genuinely brought down is a harsh label to pin on someone.

“It’s almost impossible,” said Philip Don, the Premiership’s referees manager. “The referee has one angle and a split second in which to make up his mind. He doesn’t have the benefit of looking at it in slow motion, which makes the job all the more difficult.

“Everyone in the game has a responsibility — managers, players and referees. Until all three are prepared to accept their part in this, we’ll find it difficult to do anything other than blame the referee.”

Of course, the ultimate responsibility lies with players not to cheat and possibly see an opponent shown a yellow or red card. In the ideal world, managers would also come down heavily on their own players who fall over too easily in attempting to “win” a penalty.

Yet can we imagine Arsene Wenger telling Pires he was out of order?

The top players, particularly, are so valuable to clubs that managers will do all they can to keep them happy and if that means turning a blind eye to such excesses so be it.

But there should be a ban on all managers criticizing the referee or accusing another team’s players of diving, because it is hypocritical and two-faced.

GERARD HOULLIER, the Liverpool manager, had some interesting comments after a dreadful challenge by Blackburn’s Lucas Neill saw Jamie Carragher carried off with a broken leg on Saturday.

The injury will keep the Reds’ defender sidelined for six months.

“I hope I can walk again before my 10-month old son,” said Carragher.

Neill, who will serve a three-game suspension, was rightly shown the red card by referee Neale Barry and Houllier said the Blackburn fullback’s tackle was “not honest” and demanded an apology from the Australian international.

While in no way condoning Neill’s awful foul, Houllier seems to have forgotten that his own player, Steven Gerrard, has been guilty of similar tackles on opponents that have a “there but for the grace of God . . . ” element about them.

Gerrard was sent off for a two-footed lunge at Aston Villa’s George Boateng a couple of seasons ago.

Last year he was found guilty of misconduct by the Football Association for a challenge on Everton’s Gary Naysmith that was not seen by the unsighted referee.

A month a go a heavy tackle by Gerrard on Villa’s Jlloyd Samuel had television viewers wincing when it was replayed, but from the angle of referee Paul Durkin it appeared a legitimate block challenge.

Like cheats, it seems that only other sides have players who make tackles that can badly injury an opponent.

Apart from watching videos more closely, managers should also look in the mirror more thoroughly.

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